Thursday, June 28, 2012

Supreme Court Answers the Wrong Question

Because our judicial system only allows courts to answer questions that are asked of them, all that we learned from the Supreme Court today is that the federal government can impose taxes in a way that is designed to encourage people to buy insurance. We didn't learn whether the “ObamaCare” legislation is the best way to provide health care for the American people. We have known for a long time that it is not.

ObamaCare is designed to keep the health insurance industry functioning pretty much the same way it has been. Insurers will continue to set their own rates, which will be higher than they need to be. There will continue to be very little competition among insurers. Consumers and doctors will continue to be confused and frustrated. Insurers will continue to deny people the coverage they need and thought they had until they submitted claims. Hospitals and doctors will continue to inflate their charges so that they can discount them to preferred insurers. Doctors will continue to prescribe unnecessary tests, drugs, and therapies. Marketers, claims adjusters, salespeople, and many others will continue to siphon off a huge percentage of health care dollars into unneeded overhead expenses. In short, ObamaCare is designed to assure that some Americans will continue to receive health care that is worse and far more expensive than what is available elsewhere in the world and that other Americans will not receive health care at all.

Instead of asking the Supreme Court whether ObamaCare was constitutional, we could have asked whether a government-run single payer health care system was constitutional. The answer would have been yes. We know, because there isn't any question about Medicare being constitutional.

Why didn't we ask the Supreme Court about a single payer system? Because Obama, the Republicans who opposed any health care reform, the Democrats who were afraid to use their power, and the monied interests that support all of them didn't want anyone asking that question. None of them wanted the American people to focus on the solution to the present health care mess. None of them wanted things to change very much. They made sure we couldn't ask the court about the only system which could really make things better. They turned their backs on what the American people need.

Obama's supporters are triumphantly telling us that because the Supreme Court upheld ObamaCare a few million people will be better off than they are now. This might be something to boast about if it weren't for the fact that all of us, including those few million, will continue to be worse off than if Obama and Congress had done what really needed to be done. They had an opportunity to do the right thing, and they threw it away. Or, to be more precise, they sold it.

A lot of Republicans are upset with the Supreme Court's decision. They wanted ObamaCare invalidated, not because it would change health care, but because throwing out ObamaCare would help them reach their goal of throwing out Obama. They should be upset, but for a different reason. Today's decision doesn't endorse Obama's legislation. All the Supreme Court did today was affirm the power of the federal government to let the American people suffer and die needlessly.

Sunday, June 24, 2012


With the mayor's support, Chicago may enact a city ordinance allowing police to charge people who possess small amounts of marijuana with a municipal offense, the penalty for which would be a fine. Currently, the only option police have is to charge a person for violating the state law, which is punishable by imprisonment. The mayor says his motivation is to cut costs. Under the current law, if the police charge someone with possession, they usually arrest that person. This requires the police to spend a lot of time transporting accused people to the police station and processing them as accused criminals. Under the new law, the police would simply write a ticket and let accused people go on their way, the same as if they had gotten traffic tickets.

What the mayor isn't talking about is the fact that under the current law, the police don't have to arrest people and take them into custody in order to charge them with possession. The police could simply summon the accused to appear in court, which is what is done every day for lots of offenses.

The mayor also isn't talking about the costs that the city will still have to pay to enforce the new law. It will still have to inventory and store the purported marijuana, send it to a lab for testing so they can prove it really is marijuana, and give accused people trials. Police will still have to show up for the trials. The city will also have to try to collect the fines it imposes on people who are found guilty. This last item is not insignificant. With a traffic ticket, the fine can be collected by threatening to suspend a person's driver's license. What are you going to do to someone who isn't driving when they are found to be in possession of marijuana and may not even have a license? Impound their matches?

The mayor also isn't talking about the fact that if the new law is passed, the police will have discretion to decide whether to prosecute someone under the new city law or the state law. This gives the police just one more opportunity to act arbitrarily, discriminate against and harass certain people, and solicit bribes. These are all things the police are regularly accused of doing in connection with drug arrests.

Why not just tell the police not to charge anyone with possession of small amounts of marijuana? Why not repeal the state law that bans possession? One reason is that the police want to have an excuse to stop, frisk, hassle, and arrest people, and the drug laws provide that opportunity. It is pretty easy to plant a small amount of marijuana on someone, and it's pretty hard for accused people to prove their innocence if the cops claim they found the weed on them. Judges pretty much always side with the cops.

The truth is that cops gave up a long time ago on the idea that enforcing marijuana laws helps people avoid being harmed by marijuana. They know that marijuana isn't nearly as harmful as alcohol and doesn't lead to using other drugs. Most cops couldn't care less if people smoke marijuana. A lot of cops know from personal experience how benign marijuana is.

But the mayor, aldermen, and state and federal legislators just won't admit that there is no legitimate reason to keep marijuana illegal and there are lots of good reasons to make it legal. Just as prohibition funneled huge amounts of money into organized crime, the prohibition of marijuana not only funds crime in this country, it also plays a major role in undermining governments in the countries which supply us with marijuana.

Instead of changing the drug laws to reflect what has been learned through decades of research and experience, our timid lawmakers make tiny changes in the law, like reducing the penalties for possession and sanctioning marijuana for medicinal use. Isn't that something – our drug laws are written and enforced by people who can't cope with reality.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Weekend Shootings

Last Friday evening I joined several hundred people outside Saint Sabina Church on the South Side of Chicago for a rally against violence. Father Michael Pfleger, who has spent years working to reduce the violence, was there. Reverend Jeremiah Wright led a prayer. Police Superintendent McCarthy stood by. State Representative Collins was there. So was an alderman from the area. The Guardian Angels, Operation CeaseFire, Purpose Over Pain, the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence, CrossWalk, and a few other groups were represented. Neighborhood kids performed some poetry, and there was even a drill team tossing wooden rifles in the air. (It would have seemed more appropriate to just use batons.) Interspersed among the people from the neighborhood were a few people from other parts of the city, and even a few of us from the suburbs.

Everyone who was there knew about the problem of violence. Everyone was well intentioned and wanted to lend their support to the efforts to reduce the number of shootings. The event energized the community and gave some press attention to the problem. It was all good.

Monday morning the tally of weekend violence showed that thirty-five people were injured and seven killed by guns in Chicago over the weekend. The fact that President Obama was in town doesn't seem to have mattered. The fact that the police are now getting paid overtime to work weekends didn't seem to matter. The violence just went on like it has been for years. More Americans have been killed in Chicago this year than in the war in Afghanistan.

There are ways to reduce violence, but our society don't seem very committed to the effort. The violence we hear about in the news is closely associated with poverty and deprivation, problems which are getting less and less attention as the economy continues to limp along. Mitt Romney boldly stated that he wasn't concerned about poor people, so if he becomes our president we can expect the violence to get even worse. The Chicago Housing Authority has never replaced the affordable units it demolished over the past few years, so housing conditions remain grim for many. Jobs continue to be scarce, especially where they are needed most. And if the NRA wins a lawsuit, which is now in federal court or if the NRA gets the legislation passed that it has been pushing for years, it will soon be legal for people to carry concealed weapons all over the state.

If people who live in Chicago's ghettos feel like the rest of the city doesn't really care about them, it wouldn't be very surprising. The mere fact that Chicago still has depressed and depressing ghettos pretty much tells the whole story. Mayor Emanuel said recently that the violence is intolerable, but we seem to have a pretty well-developed tolerance for it, so long as it stays confined to certain neighborhoods and doesn't spill out into the Gold Coast like it did a little more than a week ago.

Twenty years ago, Studs Terkel included in his book Race an interview with a black woman who said, “There is such hopelessness in the black community today. The drug situation is paralyzing. Yet white America pays no attention until the problem of the black community spills over into the white. It's like seeing a fire on the next block spreading. You'd be stupid to go into your house and close the door. It won't stop the fire.” That was the same year as the riots in Los Angeles that followed the Rodney King beating and the acquittal of the police who were charged with attacking him. The Watts Riots, which also erupted out of a ghetto in California, were 27 years earlier. The riots following Martin Luther King Jr.'s murder were a few years after that.

There are other examples in American history where the public did not pay attention to a situation until it led to violence which threatened the broader society. I'd like to think that won't be the case this time and that people will show they care about other people's children getting shot as much as they would care about their own. I have my doubts.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Dump Obama

When I hear people make excuses for Obama's abandonment of the principles he campaigned on when seeking his first term, I am reminded of abuse victims. “It isn't really his fault.” “He's really a nice guy.” “You just don't understand – it's complicated.” “It's not really that bad, he could have hit me harder.” “He promised not to do it again.”

No president is going to be able to deliver on all his promises. Every president will occasionally disappoint. But with Obama, the pattern of betrayal is so consistent and unnecessary that it must be recognized for what it is – abuse. The man simply isn't who he pretends to be, and he isn't good for us. We would be better off without him.

Like other victims of abuse, a lot of Democrats are having trouble seeing that there is a solution to their problem. They don't have to keep supporting and enabling Obama, just to avoid being treated even worse by Romney. All that Democrats have to do is not nominate Obama at their convention. They can tell him it's time for him to pack his bags and go.

The rules of the convention might pose a challenge, to the extent that delegates are committed to Obama. But if enough opposition to Obama is raised, no set of rules could keep the convention from nominating someone else. Rules can be changed, and the people at the convention would find a way to do what they think is necessary. They don't want to lose the election.

Who else could run and win? In a country of 300 million people, if there aren't at least a few hundred people who are capable of being president, we are in worse shape than anyone imagines. As soon as people see that the convention is ready to dump Obama, plenty of prospects will emerge.

There really aren't many good reasons to nominate Obama for reelection. Hardly anyone thinks he has done a very good job or would do better in a second term. Even the bankers and financiers who are contributing so much money to his campaign would be happier with a Republican.

Probably the biggest obstacle to replacing Obama on the ticket is that it would make the Democrats look like they are admitting that they made a mistake in nominating Obama in the first place. I don't think that would be a surprise to many people. But the embarrassment the Democratic party would suffer if they dumped Obama would be much less than the embarrassment they will face if they re-nominate him and he loses to someone as insignificant as Romney.

The Democrats wouldn't really have to admit that it was a mistake to pick Obama in 2008, because back then it wasn't obvious that he would abuse the people who were supporting him. He talked a good game, and he seemed credible. And besides, the Republicans deserve some of the blame for Obama's election. They nominated Palin and McCain, leaving the country very little choice other than electing Obama.

It will be difficult to convince a lot of Democratic delegates to nominate someone other than Obama. But it is not an impossible task. Deep down, they know that Obama will never change. They know that four more years of him as President will be just as dispiriting as the past few years have been. They just need to realize that their only hope is to take control of the situation and make things better for themselves and the rest of the country.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Goodbye McCarthy

Politicians occasionally slip up and say something that they regret, like Obama saying the other day that the private sector was doing OK, or Romney saying he likes firing people. In a few days, we usually forget about the slip-up, because we recognize it for what it is: a slip-up. But every so often, a public figure says something that is so revealing and so stupid that it can't be recovered from, like when Gerald Ford said during a campaign debate that the Polish people were free, when they were still under Soviet domination. That slip-up was a big part of the reason why Jimmy Carter won the election and Ford lost.

Today, Chicago police superintendent Garry McCarthy said something so ridiculous that, though it probably won't result in his immediate removal, may eventually lead to his being replaced. Responding to the news that 53 people were shot in Chicago over the weekend, resulting in at least nine deaths, McCarthy said the problem wasn't violence, it was people's perception that there was violence.

McCarthy argued that crime was down, because there was a 17 percent decrease in homicides during a 28 day period he selected. He bragged that "There's not one police leader in this country who wouldn't be ecstatic” with that record. McCarthy chose not to talk about the fact that homicides are up 36 percent (223 dead this year) and shootings are up 11 percent (967 shot this year) compared to the same period last year.

There is a time and place to manipulate statistics. But to tell the people of Chicago that their problem isn't that people are being gunned down all around them, it is that they are noticing the mayhem, or maybe even imagining it, shows that McCarthy is removed from everyday reality to a degree that we aren't accustomed to.

McCarthy seemed to enjoy the attention he got standing by as thousands of police officers watched over peaceful demonstrations when the NATO summit was recently in Chicago. He posed like a real hero in his starched white shirt, and the news media dutifully reported that he was right there on the “front lines.” But McCarthy's attempt to deny the problem of bloody corpses landing at people's feet in their neighborhoods on a regular basis will erase his image of being a NATO hero.

Some might expect Mayor Emanuel to take some blame for McCarthy's blunder. Those people must be thinking of some other mayor in some other city. McCarthy is all alone on this one, and unless he makes some mighty efforts very quickly to show that he understands that the problem of shootings is real, and not just a perception, he won't be around much longer, and he won't deserve to be.

Chicagoans don't expect much of their cops. A lot of people in Chicago would be happy if the cops would simply leave them alone and stop harassing them. But people will not long put up with a police superintendent who belittles their concerns about life and death matters. Maybe if McCarthy attended some of the funerals of the children who are being gunned down in Chicago, he would understand that a grave is not just a perception, it's very, very real.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012


There are billboards on the road from Illinois to Wisconsin inviting people from Illinois to buy cheese and adult videos. There are roadside stands in Wisconsin that exist to sell corn and apples to vacationers from Illinois. The state of Wisconsin runs television ads in Illinois enticing us to visit their magnificent plastic water parks and natural attractions. Real estate agents in Wisconsin have a lot of summer homes for sale to their neighbors to the south. Wisconsin universities recruit in Illinois. Everywhere you look in Wisconsin, they are trying get people from Illinois to spend their money there.

If you listen to people in Wisconsin, though, you get a very different picture. There is a lot of resentment towards people from Illinois. Wisconsinites get tired of having to smile at Illinoisans in order to get tips. They get tired of the idea that Chicago is the big city where things are happening and Wisconsin is a place to go when you want to get away from what is happening. They get tired of feeling inferior, just as people all over the world who depend upon the patronage of outsiders get tired of being in the role of supplicant.

It should be no wonder, then, that Wisconsinites have once again failed to respond to the masses of Illinois activists who spent the last couple of weeks going door to door and making phone calls telling them how to vote in the gubernatorial recall election. When Wisconsinites think of Illinois politics, a lot of them think of governors who go to jail. About the last thing they are going to do is vote for a Wisconsin governor based on advice they get from someone from Illinois.

There are many reasons the recall failed. One of the most important is that the recall grew out of the Wisconsin governor's attack on unions, and almost no one in Wisconsin or anywhere else in the U.S. cares about unions anymore because almost no one belongs to a union. Unions cannot resume acting as a political force unless and until they move from being a romantic memory to being able to deliver a block of votes. They have a long way to go.

Obama is being criticized for not helping get rid of the Wisconsin governor. Maybe Obama could have helped fire up the people who were working for the recall, but they were pretty fired up anyway. If Obama had entered the fray, he might well have stirred up the anti-Illinois feelings and hurt the recall effort. Obama is, after all, a politician from Illinois.

Having failed, the recall supporters are complaining about all the outside money the other side spent. It's not a very convincing argument, since the recallers themselves not only brought in outside money, they brought in outside canvassers from all over the country. It's also not a complaint that will help the recallers in their next efforts. The forces that supported the Wisconsin governor will always have more money to spend on campaigns. That is the state of capitalism and wealth in the U.S. right now. If the lesson of this election is that outside money wins, the recallers might as well give up on politics altogether, because they are doomed to always lose to a better-funded opposition.

The recall proponents will be licking their wounds today. They will be asking themselves whether they should have even tried, and what they should have done differently. Whatever conclusions they draw, the nation must hope that they do not give up. They did not choose this struggle so much as it was thrust upon them. To their credit, they resisted what they saw as injustice. Their efforts may have been unsuccessful, but they were essential. People must stand up to what they view as intolerable and work to win contests which are unwinable. The impossible dream is the one that needs to be dreamed and even to be shared by those damn people from out of state.

Monday, June 4, 2012


In the past couple of days, in my own community, I have learned firsthand that there really are zombies among us. They look and act like other people. Only when they speak does it become apparent that they exist heedless of the passage of time.

In response to a news story about several people being shot to death at a cafe in Seattle, a right-wing friend said that the victims should have had guns so they could have defended themselves. He said he wasn't blaming the victims, but that is precisely what he was doing. I thought that sort of thinking had died off a long time ago, but it seems it didn't.

Later that day, a member of the board of a nearby town said she does not want to preserve a few moderately priced rental properties so that schoolteachers, firemen, police officers, dental technicians, and other people who work in her town can live there. She told proponents of affordable housing that she wouldn't want to live anywhere she couldn't afford, and other people shouldn't either. She lives on her ancestral estate on a very pricey property by the lake.

The next day a shopkeeper at a gift shop was expressing concern that the dollar store that moved into the space next to hers would attract the wrong type of people to the town, make the town look lower class, and attract shoplifters. She seems not to read the police blotter, which reports on a regular basis about shoplifters stealing purses and clothes worth hundreds of dollars from the most expensive stores in town. She seemed to think that those shoplifters would change their M.O. and start stealing paper plates, dish soap, and greeting cards. She thought we would be better off with an upscale cupcake shop or a puppy apparel boutique.

That same day I overheard the guy who empties the trash barrels at the shopping center making jokes about wetbacks. The next day I sat in the barbershop and listened to the barber complain about the Goodwill resale store because it would bring undesirables into the town from the suburb next door.

I did not seek these people out. I just happened upon them as I went about my days. These were all middle-aged people. Their hair continues to grow, but their ideas have the stench of things dead long ago.

I am not afraid of pop-culture zombies with limbs akimbo and unfocused eyes. They are recognized easily enough, they move slowly, and, according to information I obtained on the Internet, they can be defeated by destroying their brains. I don't know what to do about the zombies around town, though. They sound as if their brains died a while back, along with their hearts.